Let’s compare Wiley’s album with Dizzee Rascal’s from earlier this year. Both are the artists’ third solo albums. Both aim (again) to break grime out of the increasingly small niche it occupies in the hip-hop consuming public’s mind. Along with Kano’s London Town, together they represent the most coherent exposition of grime’s now mature, multi-faceted sound for the American market. No surprise, but there’s nothing about-to-blow-up about this. More than ever, grime’s sense of disappointment at the seemingly insurmountable barriers to conventional success is becoming palpable. When Dizzee declares, “There’s a world outside of the hood… There has to be more than this, man,” on the opening of Maths and English, it’s meant as an introduction to expansion.
But it’s increasingly clear that grime’s garage beats and aggressively ugly vocal affectations just don’t resonate with those who enjoy hip-hop, but won’t invest the time to understand music that’s in any way uncompromising. This is a shame, because –- as many critics have noted over the years -– this cadre of rappers has real skill, comparable to the most prominent MCs in America. The broken glass production of Dizzee’s “U Can’t Tell Me Nuffin'” knocks Kanye’s similarly-named single out of the water; one of the most uncompromising, brilliant rap singles this year. Kano’s “London Town” — though it doesn’t compare to the best of his 2005 stunner, Home Sweet Home — is still a dark, propulsive (yet catchy) single that would fly on most progressive dancefloors. So, in the midst of all this uncelebrated brilliance, where does Wiley fit in?
The grandfather of grime, Wiley founded Roll Deep. But if we were to judge purely on “The Avenue” we’d miss a heap: underground club nights, community radio shows, his own labels come and gone. Yes, there’s the mentorship and subsequent beef with Dizzee, still somehow cynically fueled on Playtime is Over, the otherwise calmly competent “Letter 2 Dizzee”. But if there was to be one cornerstone of those artists who appeared on the Run the Road comps, it’s Wiley. He knows it, but strangely, over the course of his three albums, the 27-year-old rapper has felt the need to assert and re-assert himself of this fact. Almost as if he’s harbouring a strange sort of insecurity. Playtime is Over is full of those familiar hip-hop boasts, you know, “I’m better than Hova”; I’m destined for greatness, great wealth, bringing platinum plaques back to the projects. Ever heard the tune before?
As might be expected, Wiley’s best when he forgets the posturing and just has fun. In the furor over his lyrics it’s easy to forget that he’s also an accomplished producer, and though he does stay firmly within the now-familiar genre limits of grime, he’s still easily able to bring fresh sounds with almost each song. “50/50”, the album’s opener, is classic Wiley: aggressive but inventive, undeniably street, but still clever with words. His delivery’s still somewhere between Kano and Dizzee –- always understandable, but true to the intonations and vocabulary of his native Bow, London streets.
On his song to his daughter, “Baby Girl”, Wiley’s attitude is harder to understand. An imagining of the baby’s future as a producer/MC, herself, he dismisses all other options –- vet, nurse –- with an absolute conviction that the only route to success is through producing music. “Letter 2 Dizzee” actually shows some insight/nostalgia on this issue, reasoning that even if they haven’t achieved the level of success they dreamed of, “think of all the raves that we did, all the shows we did, all the radio / We made up a lot of ground”. Elsewhere, “Slippin” pings, but doesn’t have the edge of a Dizzee song that it resembles. We already know Wiley’s promises to disappear, make cash, return to the game different have slipped –- his “retirement” about the same length as the rest of our annual vacation.
Playtime Is Over, despite its title, ultimately paints Wiley as something of a big kid. The more mature, balanced outlook that pops up on “Letter 2 Dizzee”, and a few other tracks, is a true emotion that could have propelled the album to something truly memorable. As it stands, though, Wiley’s third album is less inspired sign-off than something of an empty accomplishment. Sure, he’s got the production chops to produce a slick, classically grimey album. But where’s the heart?